So happy to welcome film aficionado, Kyle J. Ostrum, to This Happy Place as he shares an in-depth look at this pick for underrated Disney film.
You’ll often hear people rave about the Disney films that were released during the much-heralded “Disney Renaissance”, which ran from the late 1980s up until the late 1990s. People fondly remember and praise films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Almost all of the “Renaissance” films were commercially successful and usually outnumbered any animated competition. One film, however, wasn’t as successful. This very film is also not as well-loved as most of the other Renaissance films…
It was none other than The Rescuers Down Under, the sequel to Disney’s 1977 smash hit. It was the second film released during the Renaissance, after 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
The Rescuers Down Under, like other overlooked Disney films, has a dedicated fan base. The critical reception at the time of its release was generally positive, but it didn’t get the praise that films like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King received. Why is The Rescuers Down Under not held up to high regards? Do people just forget that the film exists? Or do they not care much about it? What is it about this film that doesn’t entertain people the way those supposedly “superior” Renaissance films do?
The Rescuers Down Under may not be like The Lion King or one of Disney’s more popular films. It wasn’t a big, epic love story with sweeping musical numbers, princesses or even magic. It doesn’t have to be, and that’s why it soars…
Staying true to the spirit of its predecessor, The Rescuers Down Under is an exhilarating action-packed adventure set in the Outback, where a young boy named Cody frees a rare majestic eagle named Marahute from a poacher’s trap, only to be kidnapped by a terrible poacher who is after the bird. Bernard (voiced by Bob Newhart) and Miss Bianca (voiced by Eva Gabor) team up with an adventurous kangaroo rat named Jake, who knows every nook and cranny of the outback, in a quest to find McLeach and save the boy. What they don’t know is why McLeach has Cody in the first place.
This could be any dull, rote adventure, but it avoids this expected route thanks to the bravura animation, the witty writing and the simple yet solid story. With the power of the technology Disney had during production of the film, The Rescuers Down Under graces the silver screen with fantastic character animation (Glen Keane’s animation of Marahute is downright wonderful), beautiful art direction and great action scenes. This would be the first Disney animated feature done entirely in CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), along with having people from Pixar work as consultants on the project. Gone were cels, digital ink and painting brought Disney animation back to the pristine look it had during the Golden Age while preserving the idea of keeping the film hand-drawn. It was truly a huge breakthrough for the medium.
What about the story itself? Character development is surprisingly existent. Disney could’ve left it out in favor of just making a passable sequel and simply deliver a letdown. But they don’t, as the writers spend time developing Bernard’s character. In this film, he’s somewhat bogged down at the fact that he can’t propose to Miss Bianca and he doesn’t get the chance, either. Jake’s daring and brave ways challenge him, and thus he ends up becoming a bigger hero than he ever was by the time climax rolls in. Miss Bianca remains the same, but she gets caught up with Jake while Bernard simply trails behind most of the time.
Percival McLeach (voiced by a wonderfully sinister yet comedic George C. Scott), the evil poacher who kidnaps Cody, is both menacing and comedic. He is a bit different than Madame Medusa from the first film; the only similarities they share is that he’s using a child to get something he wants and his interest in killing off the child after he gets ahead. The big difference is that Medusa verbally abuses Penny, while McLeach is more physical and even sadistic. Not only does he plan on killing the boy by throwing him into a river of crocodiles, he lowers him into the water and fishes him out just to get things going. His pet Goanna, simply named “Joanna”, completely steals the show, adding a lot of great comic relief to the fun story. On top of that, Wilbur the albatross (the brother of Orville from the first film, of course) is a hoot. He’s voiced by a hilarious and energetic John Candy in an unforgettable performance. While Jim Jordan’s Orville came off more like a comedic radio personality, Candy’s Wilbur is much more verbal.
It’s these wonderful characters that keep the story moving, which at times can be very lightweight. The story is often criticized as being weak, but it’s actually reminiscent of The Great Mouse Detective — very minimal and to the point. Never equating to shallow, the story doesn’t need to aim higher than it needs to be yet with its staging and production values, it still has the audacity to do it. Critics normally point to the flight scenes as the film’s finest moments, which they are. Magical and uplifting, they seemed to have had an influence on Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois’ impressive DreamWorks film, How to Train Your Dragon, which similarly tells the story of a young boy who befriends a high-flying beast.
The Rescuers Down Under shows that the animators not only had fun with the characters, but also with the art direction. The Rescuers’ gloomy atmosphere is nowhere to be found here, instead the color scheme takes on a more lighthearted vibe with bright forests and warm deserts. Some scenes, however, are a little more on the gritty side such as the scenes set in the shadowy McLeach’s home. The use of computer animation broke new ground, though today, some of it is very noticeable like the bird’s eye view shot of the United Nations building and the surrounding skyscrapers. Like the gears inside Big Ben in The Great Mouse Detective, McLeach’s monstrous vehicle was created digitally, creating a subtle effect that’s above the rotoscoping seen in earlier animated films. The truck is a character in itself, with its intimidating beast-like structure and rumbling roar.
Bruce Broughton’s lofty score adds to the thrills. The flight scenes have a dream-like quality to them, whereas the scenes set in McLeach’s lair are often moody and a tad ominous. It’s also very aggressive whenever an action sequence kicks up, making sure that the audience hears the action while seeing it unfold. Wilbur’s take off on a snowy New York night is cleverly accompanied by a classic surf rock sound. Speaking of music, there are no songs in this film at all (no songs offscreen either). This isn’t the first Disney animated film of that kind; 1985’s The Black Cauldron had no musical numbers or songs. This is actually for the better, although the first film had good songs.
The Rescuers Down Under might not be seen as an instant classic like some of Disney’s more popular films because of how different it is. Some folks might prefer when Disney stays within a “comfort zone” and produces adaptations of fairy tales or delivers big musicals. The Rescuers Down Under is actually the perfect antithesis to the Renaissance films, not being a musical or huge love story. Sure there’s a relationship between Bernard and Bianca, but it’s not front and center, plus the writers were only trying to build upon what was established in the first film and succeeded at that. The Rescuers Down Under actually has a lot in common with other “action” oriented Disney films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, which aren’t immediately thought of Disney-esque to folks accustomed to the likes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
But what defines “classic Disney”? Not fairy tales or love stories, not musicals, not a basic formula. It’s innovation and great storytelling. The first Disney animated feature might’ve been a fairy tale adaptation, but Walt and the crew tried on different kinds of storytelling from mystery to comedy to adventure. Not everything he did was a love story, and some of his best films have music that is sung offscreen rather than by the characters. The films of the Disney Renaissance may have been very entertaining and are certainly well-liked, but most of them follow a routine as they try to recreate what made The Little Mermaid a hit. The Rescuers Down Under was the anomaly of the bunch, going its own route much like how Walt did for each new film he did.
Why it didn’t succeed at the box office is another story. Its opening weekend take was half of what The Little Mermaid took in back in the late autumn of 1989, but the marketing was pulled afterwards as the film faced heavy competition from films like Home Alone, Rocky V and several other holiday season hits. Disney had no faith in it, ignorant of how it would hold up on subsequent weekends. It had a life of its own, however, garnering decent word of mouth and climbing from its low opening weekend to $27 million domestically. This wasn’t enough to please Disney executives, but it certainly held on at the box office. When released on home video in 1991 (before its predecessor hit home video, oddly enough), it was another success for Disney. Like other Disney films that didn’t fare so well in theaters, it found a new life on home video.
The Rescuers Down Under succeeds because it takes advantage of its lightweight story and tries to keep the audience thrilled for 74 minutes with excellent action sequences, wit and hilarious comic relief. Instead of trying to recreate what made The Little Mermaid successful and unlike the majority of the films that came afterwards, the film does its own thing while also delivering a satisfying follow-up to the impressive original. It’s also a real animation fan’s film, wowing in every possible way, as fantastic cast breathes so much enthusiasm and sincerity into an enjoyable script.
» Interested in The Rescuers Down Under? You’re in luck! The Rescuers/The Rescuers Down Under Blu-ray was just re-released this week in time for the 35th anniversary of the first film!